Save the environment by not travelling for meetings

6 min read
February 13, 2020

Travel is one of the most energy-intensive things we do as a human species. Transportation is the second largest emitter of greenhouse gases. The only industrial sector that’s more polluting than transportation is electricity and heat generation.

What’s more frustrating is that a significant portion of travel is absolutely unnecessary. It’s financially as well as environmentally costly, and can easily be replaced with modern information technology. Consequently, the impact of meetings on the environment can be significant.

It’s easy to see why in the age of digital information, there should be no need to spend the resources to physically transport information or data anywhere.

Sadly, that’s exactly what we are still doing.

Consider a seminar as opposed to a webinar

A seminar of 1,000 people will pretty much require that those people travel either by car or by plane, or some combination thereof to the event to begin with. Webinars do not have this problem. They are instantaneous, remote, and the majority of attendees will attend on highly energy efficient mobile devices.

About 70% of the carbon emissions related to events are due to air travel to and from the event for attendees. Another 10% is caused by car travel.

There are more than just simple carbon emissions though, there are food, beverage, lodging, and other logistics costs associated with events as well.

Seminars require that the event-space itself be booked in advance, which requires heating and ventilation, lighting, and other energy costs associated with just keeping a roof over your head as you listen to what the speakers have to say.

Additionally, there will be special equipment that will need to be transported to the event site in order to host the event. Things like audio and visual equipment, staging, and any custom lighting needs will have their own needs.

In an online setting, most of these setups will be done on a much smaller scale at home and will need no transport, and will require much less product and equipment in order to take place.

Additionally, you have to consider lodging, and disposal waste of the entire event. When people travel, they’re limited to consuming what’s available on the road, which is often packaged in products that are destined for landfill.

Guest room energy is costly as well. Up to 8% of the carbon footprint of an event is just due to guest room energy. This is not something that has to be incurred when attendants attend virtually.

What about events that aren’t exactly webinar friendly?

Event planning for things like concerts, where attendees specifically want to be there in person can be challenging to plan around in order to cut environmental impact.

While you can provide virtual and hybrid methods for customers to attend, you are still fundamentally going to have to contend with the fact that there will have to be a physical event.

In these cases, it can be important to orient your event as sustainably as possible.

According to the Green Meetings Industry Council,

“sustainability requires that we source materials that fuel our society, and our events, in ways that are both ecologically and socially responsible.”

So to reduce the environmental impact of meetings and events, it’s important to select venues and hotels with emissions reduction programs – especially ones that are powered by renewable energy. Additionally, ask your caterers if they practice recycling and composting.

If at all possible, try to plan events that are walkable.

Walking has the lowest amount of greenhouse gas emissions when compared to any form of human transportation next to bicycle riding – and it requires much less space and infrastructure to host the event. Planning events that are walkable is one of the greatest carbon offsets that any event manager can incorporate into their event plan.

Couple this with the ability for attendees to be present virtually, and you will have drastically reduced much of the carbon footprint associated with hosting the event.

How to avoid landfill

Landfill waste is one of the most environmentally harmful costs associated with events and just human environmental impact in general. Landfills are permanent ecological commitments to storing trash long-term, and they emit carbon gases like methane as materials decompose.

For a typical corporate trade show, over 40% of the materials consumed can be committed to landfill. Only roughly 35% of it is recycled. With all the food waste, the impact on the environment is even higher.

Reduce, reuse, recycle

To increase the portion of the waste that is recycled, it’s important to provide bins that are clearly marked and conveniently available for your attendees so they can sort their waste.

The most important materials to recycle are aluminum cans and PET bottles at events. Aluminum cans are 100% recyclable, and PET bottles can be recycled many times before their polymers become unsuitable for re-use as plastic bottles.

The event planning process is a good time to plan for these highly recyclable materials to be available as environmentally friendly alternatives to, say, styrofoam cups. Event organizers can plan for water bottles to be re-used and refilled multiple times by the attendees, and eliminate a substantial chunk of the food and beverage waste before it ever occurs.

Each attendee is going to generate a bit less than 2 kilograms of waste per day at an event. A little more than one of those kilograms are going to be landfilled. It’s important to be mindful of that and try to nip that in the bud as much as possible.

It isn’t required for event attendees to produce any landfill garbage at all during their trip.

Event attendees are not the ones fully responsible for their environmental impact when traveling to an event. They have no choice; they must use what is available to them at the time. Event planners are more responsible for designing a sustainable meeting from the beginning.

Won’t that cost a lot of money?

While the most environmentally ignorant practices exist because people were pursuing the most efficient methods to profit, those providers and vendors did not have to bare disposal fees.

As an event organizer, your financial interests coincide with environmental interests.

In terms of bang-for-buck, video conferences, virtual meetings, webinars and live-streamed events certainly have much, much higher profit margins than their traditional counterparts. This is largely because they do not have the upfront investment costs that the old way of doing things has.

Now, it is true that there is a slight premium for being picky with how sustainable your event will be. Biodegradable PLA is more expensive than its petrochemical polymer counterparts. Eco-friendly paper straws are more of an investment than a giant pack of the forever-plastic straws that find their way into natural waterways.

But the good news is that these slight costs are really small in comparison to just a few green choices that you can make when planning your event.

Consider the cost of running a daily shuttle service from parking zones to your event, as opposed to picking a venue that’s walkable in the first place. Consider again something simple like having hand dryers available as opposed to sanitary paper towels. Paper towels are paid for by the event twice. Both in purchasing and in disposal.

A few green choices can easily offset their costs – and your venue-goers will appreciate it, too!

Sustainable business meetings are the future

Management-level business meetings are a significant chunk of what managers spend their time actually doing. The majority of their productivity happens outside the meeting room when working with their actual teams on solving specific problems.

The habit of communicating in formal business meetings is tremendously costly, both to the businesses’ bottom line and the wellbeing of our planet.

The majority of travel we will ever do in our lifetime is our daily commute to work. Commuting, for the purpose of communicating, is tremendously wasteful of your time and carbon footprint. Even if you use public transport. Virtual meetings are instantaneous, cost effective, and often times more productive than their face-to-face counterparts.

Perhaps at some point in the future the concept of having an office where many people travel to specifically to do information and organizational work will be a nearly forgotten concept.

Whether that’s a forgotten concept because we have all transitioned to environmentally minded and efficient cyber-presence in our office lives, or whether it’s a foreign concept because we’ve destroyed our environment to the point that we’re essentially in the stone age again and offices make no sense to hunter-gatherers… is yet to be decided.

Either way, it is clear that the future cannot sustain our silly habits of continually wasting resources by conducting business in ways that aren’t compatible with what nature can afford us.

Business and industry will have to adapt, and every time humanity has had to adapt to new circumstances we have done so by utilizing new and exciting technology.

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